Already established as a successful rapper alongside her sister Eboshi in the experimental hip-hop duo Cartel Madras, Contra is still developing her creative interests by exploring art and film through a Calgary production house she co-founded.
Born in Chennai, South India, Contra’s family immigrated to Calgary as the energy sector boomed. Finding herself a minority in a southern Alberta city known for oil profits and the Stampede, Contra turned to art and music to express herself.
“The way in which I adjusted was by just doubling down on that identity,” Contra said. “Being very much, like, a weird internet-music-film-nerd kid.”
Gravitating to characters in music, film, literature and pop culture like Kanye West, Stephen Fry and MF DOOM, Contra formed her goals. Music and movies were always playing in their home, with tunes from childhood Indian films serving as a score for their life. Contra and Eboshi’s parents also provided piano and singing lessons to complete their musical upbringing.
“We took to it pretty strongly,” Contra said. “For as long as I can remember, I was waking up and trying to soundtrack my life with something.”
Contra began writing songs — terribly, according to her — and rapping for friends at the age of eight or nine. As a teen, she honed her skills in private because no one her age was rapping, especially not girls. Cue the rap era of Soundcloud — a website for uploading, promoting and sharing audio — and the sisters knew it was time to release their music on that platform.
Thinking their music was too experimental and explicit for Calgary, they initially stayed anonymous. But after adopting the name Cartel Madras and applying to music festivals with 30 to 60 second demos, the duo was invited to Calgary’s 2018 Big Winter Classic festival. Although they were visiting India at the time, the sisters flew home and turned five minutes of music into their inaugural set. As soon as Cartel got off stage, they knew they had to take their music seriously.
“Even though we were so fresh, sometimes you just know when you were, like, born to do something,” said Contra.
By the end of 2018, the sisters asked their longtime friend, Yungkamaji, to be their full-time DJ. Mutual love of art forged a strong connection and when DJing for Cartel, their chemistry and energy together was undeniable. A 2019 Sled Island show where they opened for Jack Harlow at the Hifi Club stood out for Yungkamaji.
“The roof was like, about to blow off.”
From the beginning of Cartel’s evolution, the sisters fostered a creative community with other Calgary artists and musicians. Contra, Eboshi and Yungkamaji soon co-founded the art collective, sansfuccs, along with visual artist Jae Sterling and Cartel’s manager Eman. Later on, their production house, FOREIGNERZ, came into existence.
Fast-forward to having 100 shows under their belt, Cartel was signed to Sub Pop, the Seattle-based independent record label known for early releases by Nirvana and Soundgarden. In late 2019, Cartel Madras released their first EP, Age Of The Goonda, but COVID-19 halted touring. While the pandemic stifled many globally, the duo took it in stride.
With sansfuccs and FOREIGNERZ in place, Cartel jumped into making films and music videos while continuing to write music. Since Eboshi now lives in Toronto and Contra still in Calgary, they created music separately and flew back and forth to shoot footage. It’s an innate process, according to Contra, as they’ve always written their own verses separately before reconnecting for the hook.
In August 2021, two weeks after their grandma’s death, Cartel Madras’ latest EP, The Serpent and The Tiger, came at an intense time. Contra felt it provided a strange sense of closure and also a new beginning, as it completed the Project Goonda trilogy — three EPs Cartel created to demonstrate their range. The EP revolves around duality, exploring themes that Cartel believes reflect our current times.
At the beginning of their career, it seemed obvious to be referred to as female rappers that were South Indian and queer, but now they resist those labels. Contra found it strange when Cartel Madras was touted as ambassadors of representation, particularly when called diaspora artists making albums for diaspora kids.
“I think that’s very flattening to art,” Contra said.
Rather than writing with a particular agenda in mind, Contra’s personal experiences are her inspiration. Her background and history take form in her lyrics, as that’s her reality. Instead of writing songs for one particular group of people, Contra said Cartel’s music is for anyone who wants to listen.
While sometimes using labels is necessary to get booked, Contra thinks stuffing all South Asian artists into one box does a disservice to everyone when they’re from entirely different genres. To free herself from labels, Contra’s plan is simple — make music and art first.
Contra’s creativity constantly weaves into Cartel. Both sisters are actively involved in their music videos, putting much forethought into the visual elements of their music and creating what Contra describes as a crazy, multidisciplinary art universe. In addition, she likes using her stage name for all the art she makes.
“I think Contra is very much who I was always supposed to be.”
When describing her work ethic, Contra is blunt.
“Neurotic. Highly, highly obsessive and kind of up and down.”
Eman, who produced a documentary Contra directed about Calgary’s underground art and music scene, is awed by her energy.
“She’s a force — in the sense that her creativity knows no bounds.”
Contra is excited about what the future holds. Having recently played at the famed SXSW music festival, Cartel looks forward to a show in Toronto, and has a tour with the hip-hop group, clipping. in the works. They’ve also been shooting a short film with another to come.
Contra hopes to make a second season of her first documentary, Dispatches from the Calgary Underground, which Eman cites as the initial vehicle for Contra’s vision to highlight Calgary’s art scene. The latest art exhibition from FOREIGNERZ, New Architects in a Liminal Time, recently opened at the Plaza Theatre, and later at The Grand.
Ever an advocate, Contra advises young artists to be brave and embrace their creativity.
“Create art without any inhibitions, and imagine who you want to be, and create art for that person. And don’t think of anything else.”